Robert Louis Stevenson's novella Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), makes a once-common biblical allusion that might puzzle many modern readers when Henry Jekyll reflects that his atavistic existence as the brutal Edward Hyde, called forth suddenly without the aid of the potion, is the harbinger of the end of his independent existence as the respectable physician:

This inexplicable incident, this reversal of my previous experience, seemed, like the Babylonian finger on the wall, to be spelling out the letters of my judgment; and I began to reflect more seriously than ever before on the issues and possibilities of my double existence. That part of me which I had the power of projecting, had lately been much exercised and nourished; it had seemed to me of late as though the body of Edward Hyde had grown in stature, as though (when I wore that form) I were conscious of a more generous tide of blood; and I began to spy a danger that, if this were much prolonged, the balance of my nature might be permanently overthrown, the power of voluntary change be forfeited, and the character of Edward Hyde become irrevocably mine.

Earlier, Thomas Carlyle, who had an enormous influence upon Dickens and many other Victorian authors, made a particularly powerful use of this commonplace allusion to the Book of Daniel when letters written in fire warn of the decadent ruler's destruction. Dickens, who often echoes Carlyle, not only in A Tale of Two Cities but in his later works as well, referred to the Writing on the Wall in Hard Times (1854). There the novelist gave a dire warning about the consequences of a nation's inculcating children in the Utilitarian ("Gradgrindian") doctrine of "Fact, Fact, Fact" while neglecting the cultivation of imagination or "fancy."

But, happy Sissy's happy children loving her; all children loving her; she, grown learned in childish lore; thinking no innocent and pretty fancy ever to be despised; trying hard to know her humbler fellow-creatures, and to beautify their lives of machinery and reality with those imaginative graces and delights, without which the heart of infancy will wither up, the sturdiest physical manhood will be morally stark death, and the plainest national prosperity figures can show, will be the Writing on the Wall, — she holding this course as part of no fantastic vow, or bond, or brotherhood, or sisterhood, or pledge, or covenant, or fancy dress, or fancy fair; but simply as a duty to be done, — did Louisa see these things of herself? These things were to be. [Book 3, "The Garnering," Ch. 9]

Dickens's deployment here of an allusion in the denouement both engages and flatters the reader in that writer, playing upon the Common Reader's knowledge of the Bible, indicates that only a fool would not recognise that British society will soon deeply regret the supplanting of "fancy" by "fact" in its newly constituted public schools, and that sensible readers must already see "the writing on the wall." The novelists both allude to the supernatural writing which appeared on the wall of the royal banqueting chamber of the decadent ruler of Babylon in "The Book of Daniel," Chapter 5, verses 1-4 Like the Babylonian empire's, Britain's days as a superior society are numbered if it continues to ignore the importance of imagination in the lives of all its citizens, but particularly in the lives of children, and makes some provision for works of the imagination in a curriculum focusing on science and mathematics. In their reading and knowledge of the Bible, Dickens and Stevenson shared a pool of common knowledge with the vast majority of Victorian readers, for even those who could barely afford the weekly instalment of Household Words in 1854 would have been familiar with the Old Testament account of Belshazzar's Feast through sermons, Christian iconography (particularly in church decoration and stained-glass windows) and bible-reading, while the educated would have connected the reference to the famous 1635 oil painting by Rembrandt (now in the National Gallery, London) or John Martin's more recent painting.


Victorian Web Robert Louis Stevenson

Last modified 24 October 2011